Adam Smith's lonely military pension fight

Anne Wernikoff

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee is in an increasingly lonely position in Congress fighting against repealing the $6 billion cut to military pensions.

Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Thursday he’s frustrated and concerned with the backlash in Congress against the cut to the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for military retirees that was part of the December budget deal.

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“It’s frustrating that we are still not accepting the reality of where we’re at,” Smith said at a breakfast with defense reporters Thursday. “Everyone is still at the mindset we were at three years ago, in terms of projections of what DOD is going to spend. And that’s gone,” Smith said.

Since Congress passed the budget deal to reduce the COLAs for working-age military retirees, there’s been a major push on Capitol Hill to repeal the cuts, with a flurry of bills introduced to do so.

Smith is one of the few lawmakers — along with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — to publicly say that the pension cuts are a good idea, siding with defense budget reformers who argue the cuts are needed in order to curb ballooning personnel costs in the military.

The pension cuts in the budget deal reduce the annual COLA for working-age military retirees — those who served at least 20 years — by 1 percentage point below inflation.

Smith said that, while the cuts were substantial, they had to be balanced against the other budget pressures facing the Pentagon. He said if curbs aren’t placed on the military’s expensive programs, it would lead to a “hollow force.”

Other lawmakers have argued the $6 billion saved through the pension cuts could be found elsewhere. They say cutting benefits for military retirees is breaking a promise made to members of the military when they enlisted, and any personnel cuts should not affect current service members or retirees.

Smith took aim at his congressional colleagues Thursday, saying the pushback against the military COLA cuts is the latest in a long line of congressional decisions to stop the Pentagon from cutting programs, closing bases or raising health fees.

“Unfortunately, the bulk of what is happening, as far as interest groups and as far as members of Congress are concerned, is to simply try to protect everything,” Smith said. “We have become increasingly interest-group driven and parochial driven. Members, by and large, build relationships with constituents based on what we’re going to protect.”

Smith also has a major parochial interest in his state — Boeing is based there — but he said that isn’t something he considers when he’s voting on national security issues.

“I’m not going to be the guy who is always going to try to protect my district at the expense of what might be the better interest of the national security of the country,” Smith said, citing one of his early votes in Congress against building more B-2 bombers, siding against Boeing.

The Armed Services Committee ranking member acknowledged the repeal of the COLA cuts “seems likely” at this point, and said he was concerned what that meant for future compensation reforms.

“It certainly does not bode well,” he said.

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